David Lynch’s Lost Highway plays like a companion film in a lot of ways to Mulholland Drive, which the director would release a few years later and perfect his particular brand of surrealist nightmare-mystery. Here we have a lot of the same ingredients as that film and just as much ambition in the themes, ideas and images on show, but not quite the same level of execution.
Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway is a story that suggests more than it tells, and is full of seductive mysteries that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Who is the pale-faced man in the cabin? What happened to Pete on the night of the transformation? Did Fred really murder his wife? Lynch leaves all these questions unanswered and, in doing so, smears a gooey and inescapable layer of psychological intrigue all over his film.
The structure of Lost Highway is quite brilliant, too. The opening scenes act as a more traditional narrative set-up in the vein of a horror movie, but after a climactic (orgasmic?) point at the 40 minute mark, things start to unravel into a nightmarish sequence of half-cohering scenes which are tied together more by their psychological intensity than by any sense of a structured narrative. This is a key technique that Lynch developed in his later films, from the ‘entering the blue box’ scene in Mulholland Drive to the glorious marathon-nightmare-clusterfuck of Inland Empire.
But while the vision and the technique is all there, the execution is somewhat lacking at points. I find all three of the main actors a bit flat, to be honest: both Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty are trying too hard to be enigmatic while just coming across as a bit passionless, while Patricia Arquette isn’t really given much scope to be anything other than breathy and alluring.
It could perhaps be said, also, that Lost Highway leans on sex a bit too heavily in creating its atmosphere of seedy, glossy mystery. Where Mulholland Drive is full of richly imagined moments like Club Silencio or the encounter with the Cowboy, Lost Highway falls back a few too many times on psychodramatic sex scenes which begin to wear themselves out towards the end.
While not perfect, Lost Highway is a film that could only have been conjured out of the vivid, twisted and surreal imagination of David Lynch, and is a clear stepping stone towards his later classics that remain some of this century’s greatest movies.